Monday, August 13, 2012

Teaching Kids Fatphobia

Yesterday, I happened to catch Amanda Levitt's thoughts as she tweeted watching Matilda for the first time since she was a kid. She had some interesting observations. Here are some of her tweets consolidated:
Watching Matilda as an adult is really shocking when the last time you watched it as a 10 year old. The way fatness and gluttony are treated like mortal sins makes me really sad so many kids had to watch this. I do find it really interesting how conflicted the body of the villain, Miss Trunchbull, is. Not only is she physically strong, which is used as a way to harm the kids at school but also used to devalue her. Ms. Honey is portrayed as a delicate flower who speaks softly and the first kind person Matilda has ever met. Matilda is a great film to show how we teach children fat stigma.
Levitt got my wheels turning on this subject. I think it's pretty well known how poorly fat people in the media are portrayed as a whole, but when you take a look at the media children are consuming, it becomes disturbingly clear just how clearly we are teaching fatphobia to our youngest citizens.

I'd like a to take a brief tour of how fat cartoon characters are portrayed to make my point. Most of the examples I have are from my own childhood and reflecting upon that, so forgive the not necessarily current nature of the content.

Ursula, The Little Mermaid
When I decided to write about this topic, Ursula was the first character that came to my mind. The Little Mermaid came out when I was five and I was in love with it. Ursula was a chilling villain who struck fear into me. She was powerful, cunning, and strong--but most of all fat and evil. The Little Mermaid is often cited as a feminist key criticism against Disney in general. (I mean think about it--Ariel quite literally gives up her voice for a man.) But the portrayal of Ursula could be seen as especially problematic. As D. Carolina Ramos wrote:
Ursula is big, hideous and even has some masculine features. Over and over again the females with strength are inherently evil, and those with beauty triumph over. ...[U]nattractive female characters are directly associated with wickedness and related traits, always representing what the heroine does not. Ursula, the only female with a voice and with power, is killed in the end, while the subjective female, Ariel, lives happily ever after in view of the fact that the voice of a woman matters little in the movie.
(And keep in mind that fatness is cultural short hand for unattractive.) So here, we have a powerful, fat woman but she needs to be destroyed because she is so horrible. Not sounding so great, huh? Well just hold on, because Ursula is not alone.

Cartman, South Park
If you've watched even one episode of South Park, you probably know Cartman is an asshole. He is manipulative, stubborn, racist, mean, spoiled, indulgent, selfish, and abusive. And beyond being a generally bad person, he is the only member of the core group of friends who is a villain. In fact, Cartman once killed a boys' parents and fed them to him as a chili. He has also committed murder, terrorism, kidnapping, drug deals, robbery, and on and on.

While his thinner counterparts, Kyle and Stan, are most frequently trying to make their messed up community a little better and spouting off pearls of wisdom at the end of the episode, Cartman is engaged in general evilry. (Yay made up words.)

Other characters, less evil but not good
So Ursula and Cartman serve as stand out examples of how fat cartoon characters are portrayed as evil. But there is a long, exhaustive list of fat cartoon characters who are instead depicted as foolish, lazy, stupid, sloppy, and glutenous. They are intended to provide general comic relief because of these traits. To this list, I would suggest Fat Albert, Homer Simpson, Barney Gumble (also from the Simpsons), Garfield, Peter and Chris Griffin (from Family Guy), Stimpy (from Ren and Stimpy), Hef (from Rocko's Modern Life), Bobby (from King of the Hill), Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (from Alice in Wonderland) and most recently in my mind, the Nurse in Brave.

Snacker and her crew
While these cartoons are sending children implicitly negative messages about fat people, sometimes things are much more overt. This past winter, Disney came under scrutiny for a planned new game at Epcot which was unapologetically fat shaming. As Ragen Chastain covered at Dances with Fat,
This is a new game at Epcot wherein kids meet their “Heroes” Will Power and Callie Stenics and fight with them against “Enemies” The Glutton, Lead Bottom and Snacker...Disney is supposed to be the happiest place on Earth and now fat kids – who are subjected to a barrage of shaming, humiliating, stigmatizing, and bullying messages from society on a daily basis – will go on vacation and find out that people who look like them are villains who other kids fight for points and bragging rights. Why doesn’t Disney just hold fat kids down and let park guests kick them?
It's worth noting that following the online backlash, Disney pulled plans for this attraction indefinitely. That's certainly a victory for those of us who spoke out against the ride, but it unfortunately doesn't change the fact that our society is still teaching fatphobia on a regular basis. No matter which way you slice it, cartoons and marketing for children are clearly sending kids some pretty negative messages about fatness. The idea seems to rest on the acceptance of two faulty premises:
1) There is something inherently wrong with fat bodies and
2) Because of this, we can assume that fat characters will be deeply flawed in other ways as well.

The result is that you don't see many fat cartoon characters filling the hero role or even as just neutral characters. (It's no wonder that when there is a fat hero, fat activists take notice.) When you take a critical eye to the media our kids consume, it's not surprising that fatphobia is so strong in us as a culture. Children are impressionable and they're being sent the message that fat people are at best laughable; at worst evil. And, of course, as Chastian pointed out, messages like this are also teaching fat kids specifically that something is wrong with them...that they're the enemy...that they're not right.

So the next question is what can be done? Of course, the ultimate goal is a society in which the dominant messages being sent to all of us don't create a mental shortcut between fatness and horrible qualities; a society where we don't shame certain body types; a culture where the images we are exposed to represent a wider array of people. However, in the interim, it's really up to parents to ensure that they are having conversations with their kids about the messages they receive. And it's up to all of us to speak out against the fatphobia we see on a daily basis.


  1. I love this! Growing up as a fat girl, I always wanted a fat, female protagonist to look up to instead of being the fed the "Fat = Evil/Dumb/Weak" trope.

    I'm an artist now and my thesis show was called "The Feast of St. Fatty 2x4". It explored issues of fat and gender identity as well as creating a fat, adolescent role model portrayed in a positive light. It was the kind of thing I wish I had seen as a kid and at the show many people of various body sizes found the work resonating with them and agreeing with the fat/body positive message which was awesome!

    I even took some of the work to an elementary school and talked with groups of students from K-5 about St. Fatty, her adventures, and how being bullied about your body/weight/gender/race/ect was pretty hurtful. Children absolutely lOVED it, which really hit home for me.

    I think more artists and illustrators working with issues of Fat as well as other main identities need to start getting their work out there in the hopes that kids and teens can see their identity represented in a positive light and have a role model to look up to. It's a big, uphill battle but I know that good can come from it.

  2. Fat Gluttonous dads who are dumb...that is what a lot of cartoons have, I can not bear to watch.
    One positive.. I tried to paste a link, MotoMoto from madagascar. I love his big and chunky song.

  3. I really understand your argument, it does strike a chord with me. However, there have been *some* fat heroes.

    What about kung-fu panda? or dumbo?

    1. Hi there,

      I actually linked some praise to Kung Fu Panda in the analysis, because I totally agree.

      Here is that link again:

    2. Yes, but their Po's weight is almost *always* the subject of the joke. He is constantly made fun of and denigrated because of his weight. Yes, he powers through it with some self deprecation. That does not exactly make him a positive role model for heavy children that struggle with their weight, and I found it frustrating that the story centered more around his fatness and how his fatness is funny than defeating the villain.

      Dumbo was an elephant. It is hard to make a skinny elephant, but he was also the thinnest and smallest elephant.

  4. I recently rewatched 'Up' and I quite liked the portrayal of fatness in the young boy who accompanies the old man on his journey to Paradise Falls. He is fat and physically quite weak (shown by his struggles to climb up a rope and his failure to keep up with Carl as they drag the house along), but he is also brave and loving and ethical, and I don't think his physical fatness is linked to any negative traits or, particularly, any positive traits. He's just a fairly normal cartoon protagonist, who happens to be fat.

    I also saw the Madagascar films for the first time, and I thought the treatment of size in relation t the hippos was really interesting - Gloria and her hippo date openly appreciate each other's 'big'ness and articulate their attraction to each other in those terms. It's actually really nice to watch, but I'm not sure it's progressive because the goodness of fat is restricted to the hippos - there aren't really any other fat characters, and fat is never mentioned outside of those scenes. So it's kind of fetishizing and ghettoised, which complicated my enjoyment of fatness being treated as sexy.

    Just my thoughts!

  5. South Park is not a childrens' television show. It's target audience is adults, and not a single bit is meant for children.

    1. Regardless, kids watch it. It first came out when I was in middle school and was EXTREMELY popular among my 11-14 aged cohort. Plus, the technicality of who it is "targeted" for doesn't change the fact that it is transmitting a fatphobic message.


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